Posted August 23, 2013 by Chris Warren in Blog

Occupy Prepaid Debit Card No Slam Dunk

Occupy Prepaid Debit Card No Slam Dunk
Occupy Prepaid Debit Card No Slam Dunk

When the Occupy Wall Street movement announced its intention to unveil a prepaid debit card this past July, the news stirred plenty of attention. Unsurprisingly, the notion that a group of protesters who directed the bulk of their anger at bankers would enter the financial services industry was too delicious a story for many news outlets to pass up.

Adding to the allure of the creation of The Occupy Cooperative, which will release the Occupy Card and eventually hopes to offer other banking services to its product line, was the possibility that it could be the start of a shakeup of Wall Street that protests alone could not accomplish. “As we build up the number of users of the card, we shall soon be able to introduce further services that will shake up the current behemoths in the banking sector,” Carne Ross, a founding board member of the Occupy Cooperative, told in a recent interview. “These products will serve the same constituency as the card, wherever possible they will bolster the credit unions, provide low-cost choices, bypass the entrenched systems that rip everyone off, and brick-by-brick build alternatives for ordinary folk’s needs.”

Good intentions and plenty of publicity aside, the Occupy Cooperative faces a tough road ahead. That’s the message of a recent article in Time Magazine entitled “5 Hurdles an “Occupy”-Branded Banking Product Must Clear.” In the story, reporter Martha White identifies a number of challenges Ross and his colleagues will face as they begin their crusade to upend the financial services industry.

Among the hurdles the Occupy Cooperative must surmount are raising a sufficient amount of start-up capital. In her story, White cites the efforts of Occupy activists in San Francisco, who have tried and failed thus far to cobble together enough cash to launch what’s known as the “People’s Reserve Credit Union.” Also problematic, at least if Occupy intends to act like a regular bank and take deposits and offer loans, are the many, many regulations involved. While the Time article correctly points out that prepaid cards are largely unregulated (at least for now), entering into traditional banking services would require Occupy to buy a bank or credit union, since starting up a new one would mean obtaining a federal or state charter.

Other challenges Occupy faces also include the need to access the payment system – which costs money – so that cardholders can actually use their plastic and simply being viable financially if, as Ross promises, there are few fees associated with the card. Finally, White uses the example of PerkStreet Financial as a cautionary tale. When PerkStreet launched five years ago, she writes, it promised to upend the banking system by offering consumers such incentives as 2% cash back on debit card purchases. But PerkStreet’s ultra consumer-friendly approach didn’t make it; it will shut down in September. “We tried to change banking, the most broken industry in the country, in the midst of a financial crisis. It was incredibly hard and we were ultimately unsuccessful,” the article quotes PerkStreet CEO Dan O’Malley, from a blog post O’Malley wrote.

Only time will tell whether Occupy can figure out a way to succeed. Obviously, though, the group that hit the streets to protest inequality and the abuses of the financial system knows better than anybody how hard change can be.

Chris Warren